Europäisches Institut für Menschenrechte - Prof. Dr. Dr. Ümit Yazıcıoğlu -
       Europäisches Institut für Menschenrechte- Prof. Dr. Dr. Ümit Yazıcıoğlu -

The Last Quarter of the 20th Century in Chile: Military Dictatorship and International Political Dynamics

The Last Quarter of the 20th Century in Chile: Military Dictatorship and International Political Dynamics



Prof. Dr. Dr. Ümit Yazıcıoğlu


1. Introduction

In the second half of the 20th century, Latin America served as a critical backdrop for ideological struggles, political transformations, and social conflicts.


Within this intricate geography, Chile holds a unique position. The military coup in 1973, which overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende, not only induced regional but also global political reverberations. This event stood as a tangible example of how the ideological polarization during the Cold War era could manifest global implications through a regional conflict. This article delves into the rise of Salvador Allende's socialist government, the ideological context, the economic and social reforms, as well as local and international reactions to these reforms in-depth.


The power dynamics behind the military coup on September 11, 1973, the role of General Augusto Pinochet, one of the principal actors in the coup, and the shifts in Chile's socio-political structure form the central thrust of this article. Moreover, the analysis includes a comparison of this coup with other similar events in Latin America, the regional policies of the United States, and Latin America's strategy during the Cold War. In this context, the interactions of the Allende administration with other socialist movements in the region and its relations with the international community are thoroughly assessed. Concludingly, this study seeks to comprehend the social, political, and economic transformations in Chile post-coup and the domestic and international strategies of the Pinochet regime, aiming to understand the significance of this period in Chile's overarching history.


2. Allende and Pinochet: The Struggle of Power and Ideology

Although Salvador Allende hailed from a prestigious social class in Chile, he was a staunch advocate for social equality and justice. Shaped by the teachings of Freemasonry and the Radical Party, Allende deeply committed to socialist values from a young age. He began his parliamentary career serving as a deputy and senator, holding key positions such as the Minister of Health and Social Services.


In contrast, Augusto Pinochet was born into an ordinary family, dedicating his life to military service. Raised with profound Catholic convictions, Pinochet was known for his interest in defending national security and delving into geopolitical issues. This fundamental conflict between Allende and Pinochet significantly influenced not only the political direction of Chile but also the broader political climate in Latin America.


When Salvador Allende was elected as the President of Chile in 1970, he became the first democratically elected Marxist president in Latin America. During his tenure, Allende sought to implement socialist policies, including a national health service, educational reforms, and the nationalization of major corporations. However, these policies were met with skepticism both internationally and locally, especially from the United States and conservative factions in Chile.


By 1973, the country faced serious economic challenges, leading to escalating resistance against Allende. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military and air force, under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet, staged a coup in the capital, Santiago. During the coup, the presidential palace, La Moneda, was bombed, and Allende lost his life, with ongoing debates regarding whether it was a suicide or a result of assassination.


Following the coup, Augusto Pinochet seized control of the country, establishing a military dictatorship that lasted for 17 years. Pinochet's regime was notorious for human rights violations, detaining political adversaries, and employing torture. Pinochet adopted liberal economic policies, initiating economic reforms based on the recommendations of economists from the University of Chicago.


In conclusion, the clash between Allende and Pinochet epitomizes the collision of socialist and authoritarian-conservative ideologies. This can also be perceived as a reflection of the Cold War era, as the events in Chile played a pivotal role in the broader contest for influence spheres among global superpowers.


3. Chile's Transformation: Between Allende's Vision and the 'Unity of the People' Challenges


In September 1970, the presidential elections in Chile garnered international attention. Salvador Allende, the candidate from the left-leaning "People's Unity" coalition, won the elections with 36.6% of the votes. Jorge Alessandri, the candidate from the right-wing National Party, secured 35.3%, and the candidate from the ruling Christian Democratic Party, Radomiro Tomić, placed third with 28.1%.


Given that the Chilean electoral system doesn't have a second round, the confirmation of the president in cases where no candidate receives more than half the votes lies with the National Congress, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. With the left-wing parties not holding a majority in parliament, Allende was reliant on the support of the center-left Christian Democrats. Salvador Allende accepted the terms set by the Christian Democrats and signed the Statute of Guarantees, protecting fundamental rights such as freedom of speech. After adopting this charter, Allende was confirmed as the country's president by Congress and took office in November 1970.

The "People's Unity" coalition was composed of various left-wing movements and ideological directions, including the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Radical Party, United Popular Action Movement (MAPU), Social Democratic Party, and the Independent Popular Action.


Allende's administration commenced implementing the "People's Unity" program, which envisioned deep reforms in the economic structure and radical changes. This comprised an economy free from foreign and domestic monopolies, a dominant role for the public sector in the economy, and steps like nationalizing significant industries and the banking system.


However, the undeniable fact was that this radical course wasn't universally supported across all societal strata, given the election results. Allende's approach to instigating these rapid and profound changes led to complications in multiple sectors, especially the economy. Particularly, the social measures implemented for disadvantaged groups, which did not produce the anticipated impact, hampered the popularity of Allende's administration.


The events that transpired during Salvador Allende's tenure in Chile represent a crucial period in Latin American history. Allende's socialist government aimed to instate radical social and economic reforms; however, these reforms encountered severe economic challenges, foreign interventions, and domestic political tensions.


4. Allende's Impact in Chile: The Transformation of a Nation amidst Ideological Currents


Allende's presidency took place at the zenith of the Cold War. It was a period of ideological conflicts between the West and the Soviet bloc, and Latin America emerged as one of the primary fronts of this conflict. Allende's socialist government was perceived by the USA as a potential catalyst for the spread of communism in Latin America. As a result, even prior to Allende's election, the U.S. had undertaken various measures aimed at preventing his rise to power.


Allende's economic reforms, notably the expansion of the public sector, nationalization of industries and banking, agrarian reform, and initiatives to reduce income inequality, faced significant challenges both internationally and domestically. Economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., the declining prices for primary export commodities such as copper, soaring inflation, and a growing fiscal deficit complicated Allende's economic strategies.


Furthermore, one of the most significant challenges that Allende faced was the continuous tension with opposition parties and the Chilean business community. The opposition was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to obstruct Allende's policies and destabilize his administration. Some outcomes of the government's policies, like food shortages and the emergence of a black market, also had detrimental economic repercussions.


5. Chile's Tumultuous Years: From Allende to Pinochet, Political Strains and Global Interactions

In 1973, the escalating tensions and economic challenges culminated in a coup staged by the Chilean army led by General Augusto Pinochet against the Allende government. This coup resulted in the death of Salvador Allende and led to the establishment of an authoritarian government under Pinochet that lasted for 17 years.


Allende's government was perceived as an experiment on how socialism and social justice could be implemented in Latin America. However, due to external interventions, internal political strains, and economic challenges, this experiment could not be fully realized. Yet, this period in Latin American history continues to be studied and debated.


Chile's history between 1970 and 1973 narrates the political and economic turbulence following Salvador Allende's election and the subsequent implementation of his radical reform program by his socialist government. This period stands as one of the pinnacles of the ideological conflict between left and right in Latin America. Allende's agenda, especially the nationalization of property and the expansion of social programs, encountered significant resistance both nationally and internationally.


The opposition was notably supported by large segments of the middle and upper classes. Centrist parties such as the Christian Democratic Party, the right-wing National Party, and more radical right-wing groups were part of this opposition coalition.


Reactions against Allende's policies, combined with economic difficulties, led to the government being stripped of its external support, with growing public discontent. This made the Allende administration declare a state of emergency and the opposition amplify their protest actions.


The U.S. policy at the time was also significant. Even before Allende's election, the U.S. government had taken various measures to prevent his accession to power. During Allende's tenure, U.S. economic sanctions and other tactics substantially harmed the Chilean economy.


By the end of this period, in 1973, a military coup supported by the army and navy occurred, led by General Augusto Pinochet. Salvador Allende died during this coup, and Pinochet instigated a military dictatorship that spanned 17 years.


This period serves as a poignant example of how the Cold War impacted Latin America and how ideological conflicts could profoundly shape a nation's political and economic framework. During Pinochet's dictatorship, thousands were arrested, tortured, or disappeared. By the late 1980s, democratic governance returned to Chile, but the scars of this era remain palpable.


In March 1973, during the parliamentary elections, the Democratic Confederation, which united the right and center, secured 54.7% of the votes, while the "Popular Unity" share in parliament relatively increased with 43.4% of the votes. For the opposition to realize the president's resignation, they required a two-thirds majority in parliament. As spring and summer of 1973 unfolded, political and economic imbalances in Chile intensified. In particular, severe food shortages resulted in social unrest, with a significant portion of the middle class participating in strike actions involving over 250,000 participants. Attempts by segments of the armed forces to act against the government were unsuccessful.


6. The Chilean Crisis of 1973: Allende's Government and Escalating Political Tensions


On September 4, 1973, marking the third anniversary of the presidential elections, the "Popular Unity" party organized a mass demonstration in Santiago. During this period, the political atmosphere steadily intensified. This led to deliberations about a plebiscite within the "National Unity." President Allende had already stated in January 1973 that such a plebiscite should have taken place earlier. The vision of the "Popular Unity" coalition was to enable active public participation in the government and draft a new constitution that would replace the existing parliament with a people's assembly. Before the coup, the president tasked his advisors to evaluate the potential ramifications of such a referendum.


Chile, which underwent a tumultuous phase in the latter half of the 20th century, witnessed massive opposition to the socialist government, especially from senior military officers and externally-backed groups against President Salvador Allende. There were speculations regarding the active involvement of the USA's CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).


On August 22, 1973, under the influence of the opposition, the Chilean House of Representatives passed a resolution accusing President Allende of violating freedom of speech. During this critical juncture, some opposition journalists were arrested, while unlawful armed factions were encouraged to instill an atmosphere of fear among the populace, and an education policy based on Marxist ideology was introduced. The president of the Supreme Court corroborated these observations.


However, it's contentious to label President Allende's actions as indicative of a repressive regime. It must be acknowledged that the "Popular Unity" government was fragile amidst the escalating political and economic turmoil. There was a significant loss of control regarding the armed forces, and many senior military officers openly declared their opposition. In this intricate scenario, the lack of a collaborative will among opposing political factions led to a crisis between the executive and legislative bodies.


7. September 11, 1973: Coup in Chile, Repression and a Jolt to Democracy


September 11, 1973 marks a somber turning point in Chile's history. On this day, the military coup against Salvador Allende's socialist government carved a deep scar into the political narrative of Latin America. After refusing a demand for resignation, the presidential palace La Moneda was bombed by aircraft. Even though the military junta offered Allende the option to leave the country, he emphatically declined.


The armed forces rapidly took control over strategic areas of Santiago and imposed martial law. This military action, however, did not meet significant resistance from the populace. There are two differing theories regarding Allende's final hours: some sources claim he died during the occupation of the palace, while others suggest he took his own life to avoid capture by the junta.


The repercussions of the coup profoundly rattled the country's democratic structures. Activities of political parties and unions were suspended, and the main institutions of representative democracy were dismantled. The dominant figure behind this process was General Augusto Pinochet. Under Pinochet's leadership, the military junta controlled every tier of the state, with military personnel assuming pivotal roles in civil bureaucracy.


These drastic changes were pleasing not only to the right-wing factions but also to Christian Democrats. However, this did not imply that Allende's adversaries were shielded from repression. Once Pinochet was appointed as the Supreme Leader by the military junta, he ramped up the repression. This suppression, contradictory to Chile's democratic tradition, targeted not only the left but also centrist groups.


Post-coup, human rights violations were rampant in internment camps. The renowned Chilean singer Victor Jara was tortured in one such camp, the Santiago stadium.


The civil legal system was supplanted by a military court system, plunging Chile into a climate of terror. Thanks to international pressure, however, this repression slightly abated. For instance, the leader of the Communist Party, Luis Corvalan, was released after an international solidarity movement. Nevertheless, Corvalan's subsequent escape to the Soviet Union remains a testament to the coup's lasting impact on collective memory.


8. Chile under Pinochet: Economic Transformation and Democracy's Shadow

Liberal economic reforms carried out under Augusto Pinochet's leadership are viewed by many historians and political experts as effective. Additionally, the peaceful transfer of power to a civilian government post-Pinochet reinforces this positive impression. However, these views face criticism as they inadequately account for the repressive aspects of the dictatorship and the socio-economic difficulties endured by a significant portion of the population. Notably, the social costs of the economic policy implemented under conditions like strike prohibitions and dissolution of independent unions are criticized by proponents of the neoliberal "Chicago School."


During this period, despite privatisations favoring large capital groups, strategic sectors of the country, such as copper mining, remained under state control. Pinochet and his supporters rationalized their dictatorship by claiming protection of the nation from threats of Marxist dictatorship, thus curtailing democratic rights and civil liberties. There are also arguments that do not see this dictatorship in the context of fascism.


Pinochet's military government faced pressures, particularly from the democratically-oriented US administration under President Jimmy Carter, for political liberalization. Numerous Western European governments also criticized Chile's military regime.

After regaining democracy through a plebiscite in 1988, left-leaning forces took political power in the country. However, instead of making radical changes in the socio-economic structure, they settled with moderate social democratic reforms.


The tragic death of Salvador Allende has become emblematic of his struggle. His statements from this period display his dedication and resolve for the people.


Lastly, Chilean civil society has not acquiesced to the past crimes of the military regime. A testament to this is the memorial for Salvador Allende opposite the presidential palace, La Moneda, in Santiago, indicating that the past has not been forgotten.


9. Summary:

The political, economic, and social transformations of Chile in the latter half of the 20th century culminated in the military coup of September 11, 1973. Salvador Allende's socialist government was greeted with high hopes on both the national and international political stage but was toppled by a military coup. The bombing of the La Moneda presidential palace and Allende's tragic death are dramatic echoes of this event.


General Augusto Pinochet, the central figure behind the coup, is remembered not only for his economic reforms but also for his repression, persecution, and human rights violations. While some historians and political scientists view his economic measures positively, these evaluations are overshadowed by the political repressions and social costs of this period.


The victory of socialist President Salvador Allende in 1970 in Chile stood as a testament to the implementation of social and economic reforms in Latin America. However, these reforms led to economic challenges, social tensions, and foreign interventions in the country. Allende's policies faced stark reactions both nationally and internationally, intertwined with the US's policy to curb communism in the region. Allende's era was marked by economic challenges, social unrest, and political tensions. In 1973, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet took place, during which Salvador Allende lost his life, and Pinochet instituted a 17-year-long authoritarian rule in Chile. This period exemplifies how Latin America was influenced by ideological conflicts during the Cold War.


Post the 1973 coup that toppled Salvador Allende's government, Chile's political structure underwent profound changes, and a significant portion of civil society was persecuted. The military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet took control of the country and curtailed civil liberties. During Pinochet's rule, neoliberal economic reforms were conducted; some sectors were privatized, but strategic industries remained state-owned. Pinochet's regime faced criticism from the international community. Democracy was restored in 1988 through a plebiscite, but subsequent governments leaned towards social democratic reforms rather than radical changes. Allende's death became emblematic of these events, and civil society has not forgotten the military regime's crimes. In remembrance of Allende, a statue was erected in Santiago.


Note: This comprehensive analytical study, presented in an academic style, was shared at a series of conferences at prestigious universities in Mexico, Washington, Berlin, Bangladesh, and Seoul. Between 2002 and 2023, these leading educational institutions received my work with keen interest, adding profound perspectives to academic discussions.



September 21, 2023, Luxembourg.




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